Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Justice League Beyond - A Peak Behind The Source Wall

Not pictured: a six-armed Indian battlesuit, a spirit of nature and a time travelling French performance artist.
 The latest RPG campaign I've been running has been a block of Justice League Beyond using the DC Adventures / Mutants and Masterminds rules.  Regular readers will know, and comic fans can maybe guess, the theme of this game - a near-future world in which the Justice League have reformed after an absence of some years and the next generation of superheroes have taken up the mantles of the previous generation.

We're 10 weeks into this game with just our final three part finale to follow - albeit with a week's pause because a group visit to the cinema to see Ghostbusters is happening this Thursday instead of dice-rolling.

Fuck the haters, I'm giving this a go.  (Though I'm a little nervous at the way the african-american lady is portrayed in the trailers, which feels a bit more cliche-riffic compared to Winston.)

Ghostbusters is, as has been commented before, an RPG tradition around here and I'm at least partly going to nick some ideas for new ghost-busting equipment and to see if it inspires my ever-mooted present day adventure for my usually late 80s/early 90s set game, "Whatever Happened To The Glasgow Ghostbusters".

I thought it might be interesting to share some of my notes with you.  I made a sort of season plan in advance marking out what different stories I was going to do and what NPCs/locations/etc were going to feature.  By comparing these notes to the reality, we can see quite how a GMs plans can vary in the months, weeks or even days between having them and acting on them.

The magic is ruined!

There may be some very mild spoilers for my players in this article but I would have to say that it's unlikely to be anything they haven't worked out for themselves - I mean, the fact that our season finale was going to involve Arkham Asylum in some capacity isn't a spoiler so much as something I've been trying to hint towards for some time!

The Excel document where I planned out the season

Anyway, first up, here is my original season plan.  I gave each episode a title and noted it's main villain, setting and any additional NPCs who might pop up.  I also included a note of a "pre-credits sequence" - it's not uncommon for our superhero game to start in media res with the end of their last adventure, in the fashion of the Batman: The Brave And The Bold cartoon.

So, I start with a single session light adventure before going into four two-parters.  There's then one more single session adventure before heading into the three part finale.  A mix of themes abound - some tapping into some Vertigo comics for some serious & magical adventure, others referring to Captain Carrot and Ambush Bug for some more bonkers fare.  Though even then, Toontown was not exactly the funniest of adventures...

One of the better episodes of Batman: The Animated Series

First up was Curiouser, a single session adventure which went more or less exactly as planned - the Mad Hatter is broken out of jail against his will by a lady who hates him for capturing her as part of a plan decades ago.  Then a little blonde girl he was drawn to because she was called Alice Liddell, now she has found one of his old bases full of Carrollian robots and has taken it over under the assumed name Regina Quirke - or, to translate those name components, Queen or Hearts.  Her plan: off with his head!

This went pretty much exactly as expected, with some brainless combat to warm the group back into proceedings as well as setting up some stuff for the rest of the campaign.  The pre-credits sequence was the news program Dateline: Metropolis and a reminder of the changed world after last season, including the removal of all nuclear weapons from the world by a meta human.  Also, visiting Arkham Asylum to learn more about Regina and the Mad Hatter meant a chance to show the new doctor that works there and her unusual therapy techniques including getting them to perform musical theatre shows.

One for the goths.

Emperor Norton's Hat/The Book of Destiny brings not two recurring villains back as well as finally offer up an origin for one of them.  This went pretty much exactly as planned - unusual artifacts were getting stolen and the culprit was Professor Zed, seeking to unlock an epic power source for his lord Darkseid.  In a nod to one of Vertigo's founding fathers the artifacts were all infused with the powers of one of the Endless -Emperor Norton's Hat being the top hat that Death wears - and the Book of Destiny is the mighty tome he reads that records all of human history.

In an accidentally-very-Death Note touch he lost one of his books which found it's way to Earth... and to the lady the Justice League know as Scheherazade, whose magical book lets her make anything she declares become true.

One of the most potent villains I've ever statted up... and the most unreliably spelt name.

This tying together of several disparate characters into one story and one origin felt quite comic-book-like, and there was a rather cruel Gaiman streak to the fate of the villain - Professor Zed chopped of Scheherazade's hand to free the book from her side, and once magically healed and reunited with her artifact she got her revenge by telling a story that Professor Zed contracted a thousand different ailments including cancer, bubonic plague, AIDS, leprosy and motor neuron disease... but her story said he would not die of his diseases, so the poor bastard is now stuck on a life support machine where he can expect to live a long and miserable life.  This felt particularly horrible and reinforced the idea that Scheherazade is a potentially terrifying villain - though it was hard not to feel some sympathy with her.

The only notable change to this adventure as planned was that the finale took place not in Baghdad - originally planning on nodding to City In A Bottle there - but instead in Israel which gave a similar "ancient city" vibe.  I added in a couple of the minor New God characters called the Female Furies to give Professor Zed some more impressive bodyguards.  Oh, and Destiny dropped in a reference to the fact that Scherezade's book only had so many pages and she would need the last for them for something called the Hypercrisis.

That's probably not important, though.

In no way related to a previous post about superheroic roleplaying

Toontown / The Mark Of Cain started off fairly innocuously - a trip to a nerd convention leads to Ubergeek and the Justice League accidentally getting stuck on Earth-26, a universe which runs to cartoon physics.  Every season includes the appearance of another super-team for the League to befriend and this time round it was Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew, anthropomorphic animals with superpowers who protect Gnu York and it's zany inhabitants.  So far, this sounds like a light hearted romp, right?

The guardians of Earth-26 were a bit surprised to meet some shaved monkeys

Things actually took a somewhat dark, almost philosophical turn in the manner of under-rated 90s film Pleasantville - or, perhaps more overtly, Doctor Who novel The Crooked World.  The longer the Justice League spent in the world and the more they exposed the cartoon characters to new ideas the more the cartoon physics started to fall apart.  A Elmer Fudd-a-like realized that he had almost killed someone and, having never thought it possible to permanently take a life before, was heartbroken - but unable to kill himself because the cartoon physics prevented it.  When there finally was a death it was Tom catching and eating Jerry and it was played as this terrible thing - yet his punishment was questioned by the other cats of the cartoon world who wanted to know why mice endlessly breaking their bones was acceptable.  The Zoo Crew's hearts were broken as they tried to adapt to this new reality.

The philosophical angle was strong enough that I hardly needed a villain to occupy the group, casting aside my plans to use cartoon-world super-villains and making Ubergeek something of an accidental ally by the end.  Sister Superior in particular seemed to get into this adventure and was one of the first to get behind the idea that they could restore the correct physics for this world by consciously following it: so painting tunnels onto mountains then running into them, posting for ACME gadgets and getting them delivered immediately etc.

We had a happy ending with the cartoon world restored to normal - On reflection maybe I would have been better sticking to the Pleasantville style more uncertain ending.  This way left the option to bring back The Zoo Crew for future adventures but I don't know if it's just a bit too schmaltzy and lacks the punch of the original inspiration material.

For reasons that will become obvious, my group had to follow this lead and mostly play female characters.

The Second Sex / Deadlier Than The Male was an attempt to abbreviate Y: The Last Man from a multi volume epic Vertigo piece into a two part Justice League escapade.  In the last block Raj's secondary character Cormac McCool has earned the emnity of Eris god of Chaos and she was very keen to get revenge, so knowing he thinks of himself as something of a charmer she cast a mighty spell that turned every sentient male on Earth into a pig.  (This included some non-human Leaguers like Superman, Foundry and confusingly Technologic.)  They had to find a way to undo the spell before the Earth tore itself apart - and perhaps more importantly, before governments tried to dissect Cormac for his sperm.

This underwent slightly more alterations from the original plan - the pre-credits sequence was changed from Animal Woman on Dancing With The Stars to hippy superhero Polaris trying to mess with the Trident nuclear missile program and a plan to guest star Zatanna was removed and replaced by a mid-story fight with three assassins dressed as pop stars who appeared as visual gags in Batman Incorporated and whom I named Billboard.  The actual session itself was quite loose, with a problem dreamt up but no hard solution so the group were left to come up with their own conundrum and the improvised ending gave us an interesting sequel hook which managed to look like I had some sort of grand plan in mind and wasn't just making shit up as I went along.

They say covers always lie but.... no, this is fairly accurate.
Now it's time for the real lighthearted Romp, Don't Ask/The Secret Origin of The Plaid Lantern Corp.  Using a 1980s DC Heroes adventures with some tweaks for mechanics & story purposes,  this overtly comedy adventure features C-List fourth-wall breaking anarchic super-character Ambush Bug who is not too far away from "family friendly Deadpool" in premise - he galumphs about the comic universe, aware that he is a fictional character and not taking any of it too seriously.  Here it gets even more complex when he knows he's an RPG version of a comic book character, with all the bonkers-ness that implies.  His equipment list includes a copy of the RPGs rulebook, for the record.  And fifty foot of rope.  He even amended our campaign wiki entry for himself and the summaries of his sessions.

Oh, and in the course of the plot, he accidentally gets time travel powers and decides he will go back in time and give all the heroes of history some help.  Which inevitably makes the timeline a total mess and requires our heroes to try and rectify it.  Cue a hop around history, a visit to a comic book shop, Ambush Bug arriving in our living room and the first appearance of the Plaid Lantern Corp.  Probably the last, too, unless I'm in a weird mood.

But Ambush Bug, what words of wisdom do you have to share with us?

I've wanted to run this adventure for a bit but was worried the meta textual almost Looney Tunes-esque nature of it would be too much for most players but the Deadpool movie's success inspired me to give this a go.   I replaced Lex Luthor as the intro-villain with Cerebrus Rex and tweaked a few elements that dated a bit - the original adventure had a fake 1980s fanzine and reading this prop was actually part of the adventure, but I decided to excise that.  References that were more overtly mid-80s were replaced with modern DC Comics jokes about Ambush Bug saying his universal reboot was still better than the New 52 and even Grant Morrison finding the events of this story hard to understand.  (Even Raj laughed at that one)

I say "Even Raj" because, fairly predictably, this adventure was a bit love-it-or-hate-it with my group.  Raj is a straight-laced guy who just wants to punch supervillains for robbing banks and just as the more heavy politics stuff isn't his cup of tea neither was this zany piss-take.  Matthew and Aaron seemed to get into it, though - Matthew in particular coming across a copy of his own comic book and taking it with him for clues, though being careful not to read ahead of his current location lest he commit himself to doing anything in particular.  Sister Superior who both knows the Ambush Bug character and finds this post-modernist style of adventure a good laugh particularly threw herself into it, setting herself up as the straight woman for quite a few gags.

Right.  Now for a complete change of mood.

Last week was our final single session effort, a wee pallete cleanser from the silliness of Ambush Bug before we head into the serious three-parter.  The Most Dangerous Game was a trip to Australia - originally intended to be Melbourne but the group reminded me they'd been to Canberra before so we reset the adventure there to tie into that.  An angry New God returns to Earth seeking revenge on Kiri who humbled him in their last encounter - cue a big punch-up that got Raj back on side.

Since I'd already done the Polaris pre-credits sequence, I dropped that from here.  I didn't replace it with Dancing With The Stars, however - instead this was mentioned as something Animal Woman was still participating in and several superheroes were asked to attend the next airing on Saturday.  This airing is at Gotham, the same day that the lovely Saturn Girl is visiting Arkham Asylum to help with a troublesome patient.

I seem to recall we ended last season with a villain sneaking into Arkham Asylum disguised as Doctor Koemi Ebisu...

We've had Neil Gaiman magic, Grant Morrison interdimensional-ness and Keith Giffen comedy.  The game is likely to close out with an Alan Grant burst of grimness by way of Paul Dini and Christopher Nolan.  No cosmos is in danger, no nuclear missiles are primed, no timeline is in jeopardy.  The peril is just a city and people, but a great peril all the same.

I'd be interested to hear from my players as to how they've found this block of the superhero game and any requests they'd make for our return to the world of the Justice League.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry for being a bit grumpy about the Ambush Bug adventure. As you say, I'm not really a fan of the whole post-modernist 4th-wall-breaking stuff. The others had fun though.